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Joseph Smith and the Knowledge of the Early Christian Fathers

By: Steve Fleming - February 28, 2014

In 1964, D. P. Walker declared that scholars have neglected “the revival of interest in the early, pre-Nicene Fathers of the Church,” Origen in particular.[1]  In his book, The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment, Walker details the centrality of Origen to the rise of Universalism in the late seventeenth century.

In that same year, Francis Yates published her much more influential Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.  Yates’s work overshadowed Walker’s, not only his brilliant Decline of Hell, but his equally competent Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella (1958) and The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century (1972).  Whereas Walker emphasized the importance of Plato, Christian Platonism, and the Fathers, Yates overshadowed all this with her hermetic thesis that treated Western esotericism as something other to Christianity and focused on the Corpus Hermeticum, a text of limited importance to that tradition.

John Brooke based his Refiner’s Fire on Yates’s model and though he used Walker’s Spiritual and Demonic Magic and The Ancient Theology, he didn’t use The Decline of Hell, and Brooke made no mention of the early fathers (as far as I remember, I’ve misplaced my copy).  Since the late ‘80s scholars have been critiquing Yates, noting the limited importance of the Corpus Hermeticum, and stressing the importance of Plato, the Neoplatonists, and the Fathers instead, points that Walker had made.

Indeed, as I argue in my dissertation, the early fathers were fundamentally important to the rise of Mormonism, particularly in a way that Walker detailed in the Decline of Hell.  Origen was central to Universalist arguments, Joseph Smith’s grandfather was a Universalist, and there are a number of Universalist tenets in Mormonism.  The similarities did not stop there.  Numerous tenets taught by the early fathers that are also found in Mormonism were also taught in Smith’s environment: pre-existence, post-mortal salvation, preaching to the dead, multiple heavens, deification, and so forth.[2]

This leads me to a second a second point.  In church I commonly hear arguments to this affect: “This Mormon tenet was taught in the ancient world and Joseph Smith could not possibly have known about it, further confirmation of his prophetic calling.”  I in no way mean to speak derogatorily of this line of thinking: I argue in my dissertation that Mormonism did indeed draw on idea found in the ancient world.  But I haven’t found very many that Joseph Smith “could not possibly have known about.”  I’m not saying that no such ideas exist, nor have I attempted to track down every last Mormon idea; just attempting to create such a list would be overwhelming.  I do look at most of the major aspects of early Mormon theology though and I would say that the only one that I’ve found that seems absolutely unique is the idea that God lived on another planet like ours before he became God.  But no one in the ancient world taught that one, as far as I know.

Because the “Joseph could not possibly have known” idea has often been central to our apologetics, I fear that projects like mine will come across as an attack.  Me pleading that this isn’t my intent may come across as … pleading, so let me just offer other possible ways to think about this.  It’s natural to want to be unique, and Mormon doctrine is highly unusual and differs greatly from mainline Protestantism.  But unique is a very strong word and ought to be used with the greatest caution.  Building an apologetic based on aspects of Mormonism believed to be fully unique in the nineteenth century seems unwise.[3]   The better question, I would posit, is “is Mormonism true?”  This shifts the question entirely to the spiritual realm, which is a good place for it, I would argue.  If Mormonism is true, then other people having parts of the truth ought not to be threatening or make Mormonism any less true.  “Truth” found in books in the Smiths’ local library ought not to be any more threatening than “truth” found in the Bible. 

While such a proposal may be naïve, I do think that it would be wise to shift in that direction.

 


[1] D. P. Walker, The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 12. Walker’s book caused me to make one last shift to my dissertation topic.  Instead of focusing on Neoplatonism, I am now focusing on “Christian Platonism” and I begin that historical context with Clement of Alexandria and Origen.  This is only a slight shift since Clement and Origen had a major influence on the Neoplatonists, so the in tracing the influence of Clement and Origen, the Neoplatonists are included.

[2] The implications from this statement from the latest gospel topics is problematic.  “The earliest Latter-day Saints came from a society dominated by English-speaking Protestants, most of whom accepted both ex nihilo creation and the Westminster Confession’s definition of God as a being ‘without body, parts, or passions.’ They likely knew little or nothing about the diversity of Christian beliefs in the first centuries after Jesus Christ’s ministry or about early Christian writings on deification.”  While Joseph Smith and the early Mormons were not experts on early Christianity, there was a wide variety of beliefs in United States during Joseph Smith’s time, including statements about deification.

[3] J. Z. Smith criticizes insistence on early Christianity’s uniqueness.  “‘Unique’ becomes an ontological rather than a taxonomic category; an assertion of a radical difference so absolute that it becomes ‘Wholly Other’, and the act of comparison is perceived as both an impossibility and an impiety.”  Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (University of Chicago Press, 1990), 38.

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6 Comments

  1. But I haven’t found very many that Joseph Smith “could not possibly have known about.

    It seems like an awfully high evidentiary bar to establish a) the contours of Joseph Smith’s thought on a particular topic, b) the contemporary or pre-Joseph Smith existence of strongly similar contours on that topic, and c) the probability that Joseph Smith encountered b.

    Then one runs into the problem of deciding whether this constitutes a “source.” Certainly, many people of a certain bent, in and out of the Church, think that if a, b, and c are established, this undermines “the Church”, Joseph Smith, or both.

    Now, I’m not saying that defensively. I’m on the record somewhere in one of my posts, and it’s a principle I lay out carefully in a book chapter, that uniqueness is not a necessary characteristic of revelation, and similarity (even strong similarity) in the environment does not rule out revelation. Indeed, it seems God often takes something already familiar in the environment and adapts it to a new usage, e.g. rainbows, circumcision, treaty structures, sacral architecture/symbolism, etc.

    But I also think that in counteracting or reacting against the “Joseph Smith couldn’t have known X”, we need to be careful not to overplay our hand by overreaching too far in the other direction, which can be done various ways. The more Joseph Smith and teachings are reduced to a product of his environment (which is the naturalistic way of saying “yes Joseph could have known”), the more difficult it is to explain his success when others failed. (Someone’s written on that. Bushman? Givens?)

    The other methodological issue is, in order to evaluate fairly, one must be capable both of identifying potential “ancient”/”restored” aspects of his teachings, and also know the American history well enough as a background against which those things can be evaluated. Very very few can do that. I certainly can’t, since I fall heavily into the first category and weakly, if at all, into the latter.

    Comment by Ben S — February 28, 2014 @ 8:20 pm

  2. Good points, Ben. This can get tricky. There’s a couple of other things to keep in mind. 1) if we feel that certain ideas from antiquity are legitimate, things like certain teachings of the fathers that aline with Mormonism, then it seems to me that it’s not a problem for Joseph Smith to have come in contact with those ideas. That is, if the ideas are true, then what’s the problem. Again we don’t seem to have a problem with Joseph Smith reading and being inspired by the Bible (an ancient source that contains truth).

    2) if a visionary in the eighteenth or seventeen or even sixteenth century had visions that sound a lot like Mormonism, is that a problem? Again, if Mormonism is true then aren’t those other visions also true insofar as they accord with Mormon doctrine? And, once again, if Joseph Smith knew about those visions, would that be a problem? We tend to view biblical visions as legitimate and have no problem with those inspiring Smith. Or Isaiah inspiring Ezekiel, etc.

    Knowing to what degree Joseph encountered this stuff will be, and has been, debated. But I don’t see any harm in throwing out possibilities.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 28, 2014 @ 8:47 pm

  3. But I don’t see any harm in throwing out possibilities.

    No, nor I. But to the extent you’re trying to manage a personal brand among either the Church hierarchy or the lay “popular” level, it’s also probably important to be explicit about what one’s parallels and conclusions do and don’t entail.

    things like certain teachings of the fathers

    That’s quite late for me. I mostly deal with Semitics and the ancient Near East. Some of those interesting bits are technically present in the KJV, but practically invisible and unknown until the 20th century rediscovery of the Old Testament’s contemporaries, such as, e.g. Ugarit and the divine council.

    Comment by Ben S — February 28, 2014 @ 10:41 pm

  4. Just to clarify a bit, I’m writing a dissertation based on my curiosity of the cultural context of early Mormonism. The question was simply where do I see Mormon-looking ideas and do I see any patterns? I thought I did and that became my topic: Christian Platonism.

    So I looked up a bunch of stuff up on the topic and that’s my dissertation. But in the process, like I said, I found a lot of stuff (building on Quinn and Brooke). The question is, what does it mean? So I offer the above thoughts.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 28, 2014 @ 11:23 pm

  5. You bring up a very good point. Joseph Smith was surely a man who knew what was going on. In today’s society, it is hard to see the right path.

    Comment by David — March 2, 2014 @ 5:37 am

  6. Thanks for this Steve.

    Comment by g.wesley — March 2, 2014 @ 9:32 pm